Many of us have been told that outlines are good things, but we avoid them like yesterday's liver. Why is this? It's probably because we have a scary notion of what an outline is. Let's see, is this idea a little "a" or a big "A," a Roman numeral (small or large), or an Arabic number? Argh!!!
It can be useful to think of outlines in simpler terms. At the top of the page write your thesis. Then simply list the main ideas that support your thesis. You can begin by assuming that each of these supporting ideas will get its own paragraph. As you proceed, you may discover that some ideas can be usefully broken up into two or more ideas (into two or more paragraphs), but this basic model is an excellent way to begin.
Just as a paper needs a thesis, a paragraph needs a topic sentence. In your outline, try summarizing each of your main supporting ideas in one sentence. These one-sentence summaries can serve as your topic sentences.
Outlines like this not only help us to see the distinctions among our various ideas, but they also allow us to visualize the relationship of one idea to another. Look back over your outline and try to discover the natural groupings. Which ideas cluster together? Within each cluster, which idea is the most important? By answering such questions we discover the hierarchy of our ideas, and this will help us to develop the most logical order and movement of our argument.
One final note: once you've constructed an outline, don't feel that you'll sink if you decide to change it. It's an outline, not a life preserver. If you stumble upon a better way of organizing your ideas as you write, be flexible and change your outline.
Some of us have discovered that outlines are not really useful in our writing. We know how to make impressive outlines, but sitting down to write doesn't feel easier with an outline in front of us. Some writers make maps of their ideas: they start with one idea, draw arrows to the next, and so on until they come to the end of the road" of thought. Other writers begin by explaining their writing project to someone in a letter or e-mail message. This informal writing serves to loosen them up and get ideas on paper because they imagine a friendly and receptive reader.
To read about an outline in the context of the writing process, click here.